End of the Adventure?

Brand-MINI is facing its biggest adventure yet. This one however, may not end well…

(c) orangewheels

It has been a fairly interesting week for BMW’s Oxfordshire outpost. MINI has been one of many UK-based carmakers predicting doom-laden scenarios should the British government’s hapless negotiating team fail to obtain a workable deal to exit the European Union early next year.

As part of its ongoing (and increasingly necessary) catastrophe-planning, BMW’s Cowley plant is set to shut down for a month in the immediate aftermath of the UK’s departure in order for annual maintenance (which would normally happen later in the year) to be carried out, lessening they hope, the supply-chain chaos that will likely ensue.

But as politicians on both sides of an increasingly polarised and intractable ‘Brexit’ argument foam incontinently at one another, another perhaps more momentous shift appears to be occurring. The great contraction is finally under way.

In a recent Autocar report, journalist, Hilton Holloway paints a decidedly gloomy picture for Brand-MINI, as its BMW masters grapple with a rapidly shifting landscape. According to his report, Petuelring management have postponed all upcoming model actions, with even the prospect of next year’s MINI facelift facing the axe.

A comprehensive review of the MINI business is to take place, with the next-generation range not only facing drastic rationalisation, but the likelihood of it forming part of a joint venture.

There are two key issues facing MINI. First is that with volumes of around 372,000 vehicles last year, they lack scale. The second is that while the current UKL platform which underpins both the MINI range and several BMW-branded models is numerically viable, it simply isn’t sufficiently flexible for upcoming needs.

Holloway points out that BMW is to shift entirely to new scalable, multiple-propulsion platforms, which will allow for combustion, hybrid or full electric powertrains. These platforms will not only be too large, but also too expensive to be viable at the sort of price points MINI sits within. Speculation is growing that BMW are in talks with China’s Great Wall for a joint venture platform.

The news gets worse. With Global demand for the core two-door MINI falling, there is an increasing likelihood that the next generation car will eschew its founding format entirely, with both two-door and convertible being dropped.

This raises a fundamental question. Ever since the model was very successfully reinvented in 2000 as a BMW-funded, ‘sport-premium’ product, arguments have raged over its authenticity and identity, given the ideological departure from the resolutely austere and diminutive original. Successive models have only compounded the sense that the ‘Issigonis spirit’ has been supressed.

Yet regardless of where one sat in the authenticity debate, at least the presence of a model which paid visual lip service to the ur-model lent some residual credibility. Because surely if future MINIs come exclusively as four-door offerings, the whole edifice crumbles?

Perhaps this matters more to a small subset of enthusiasts than it does to the broader market, but rather than jettisoning what is the very glue that holds brand-MINI together, surely a more sensible move would be to reposition the two-door as a halo model, which could then be sold at a premium.  After all, one abandons one’s icons at one’s peril.

These decisions, should they come to pass, raise fundamental questions about the future viability of the MINI business. BMW is not a massive player in Global terms and to be blunt, MINI has not been much of a cash-generator for the Vierzylinder. If anything, it’s likely to be even less so as the wider industry shifts into a new paradigm – one where BMW’s relatively modest size makes them somewhat vulnerable.

Existential threats tend to focus minds. If Brexit doesn’t do for MINI, it’s parent’s survival just might. The MINI adventure (at least as we currently recognise it) just might be coming to an end.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “End of the Adventure?”

  1. The trouble with “retro” design is that, sooner or later, the designers find themselves trapped in a dead-end, with nowhere left to go. The VW Beetle is dead, the Fiat 500 appears to be irreplaceable (and not in a good way) and attempts to extend the design language to larger models led, inevitably, to the abominable 500L MPW.

    Likewise, the current MINI three-door hatch is, if less pretty than its predecessors, is still the best looking and least compromised model in the MINI range. (That said, the five-door version might have run it close if the accountants hadn’t forced the replacement of the sleek, frameless door windows of the three-door with thick and clunky framed items, ruining the look of the glasshouse.) The Clubman’s proportions are wierd: too long and, in particular, wide for its height, making it look like a mini(sorry!) stretch limo. The new Countryman is better detailed than the previous model, but still hamstrung by inappropriate design tropes.

    Regarding economies of scale, I thought that was the whole point of pairing MINI with the smaller FWD models from BMW? When we bought our F56 hatch, the salesman made a big deal about it being the first “proper” BMW developed MINI, its second generation R56 predecessor being merely a reskin of its Rover designed R50 original. The F56 platform and engines are shared with the 2-series MPVs and the forthcoming third generation 1-series hatchback. Surely the combined sales volumes of all these models must make for good economies of scale, particularly given their premium positioning and pricing?

    The above notwithstanding, MINI previously wasted a lot of resources developing “niche within a niche” models such as the two-seat convertible and coupe models, which must never have recovered their development costs. The brand also has to support a separate dealer network, marketing and advertising, which may simply be unsustainable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see, in ten years’ time, a couple of “MINI by BMW” models bring sold from a corner of BMW showrooms.

    1. Daniel, I expect you already know this but your salesman was taking you for a ride.

      The rebirth of Mini (MINI?) has been a ‘proper’ BMW project from the outset. Rover’s management were not really allowed anywhere near it.

  2. “BMW is to shift entirely to new scalable, multiple-propulsion platforms, which will allow for combustion, hybrid or full electric powertrains. These platforms will not only be too large, but also too expensive to be viable at the sort of price points MINI sits within. ”

    The great march up market continues. I wonder how BMW is going to keep sales volumes up.

    1. I wonder if this is true really. PSA is now presenting exactly such a platform – with the DS3 that is in the middle of MINI teritorry, size-wise. Why shouldn’t that be possible for BMW? Is it because they are mainly aiming at a sector of bigger vehicles altogether? I guess PSA has given up on anything larger than their current 508.

  3. An indicator of hard times at BMW? Obviously the MINI range and brand is a long way down the list of strategic priorities at present. If you think about that for a few minutes, including what else might be on that list, then it’s less of a surprise than it first seemed.

  4. They will never do away with the two door mini, it’s the whole raison d’être of the Mini brand. And there will be enough buyers of it, thinking otherwise is pure speculative clickbait. The Mini is to the Mini-brand what the 3-series is to BMW, it’s the pure quintessence of the brand. Variations of a theme, sure. Re-inventing the essence of it, you betcha. But no matter how many circles you go around att the end of the day you end up withthe original Mini.

  5. I would have thought that Mini was the obvious home for a whole line of electric vehicles. After all, the BMW I3 has a lot more in common with the Mini line-up than any other BMW. Further, an electric car is appropriate in Mini’s role as a city car. Finally, specializing in electric vehicles would give give Mini both a raison d’être and a way to gracefully move away being a one-trick pony.

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